IN THE RUSSIAN TRENCHES
That night we slept on the floor in one of the rooms of the manor house, rolled up in blankets borrowed from officers of the staff, in front of a great log fire.
The next morning a soldier came and inquired for me. He was shown in and said he had been sent to me by the commander of the 8th Regiment by order of General Pleschcoff. He was to be my orderly, having been picked out of 50,000 men in the corps because he spoke English. He had lived two years in America, where he had worked in a Pittsburgh machine-shop. He had earned enough to return home, some six years before the war, and buy a little farm in the province of Omsk, eight hundred miles north of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He was married and had two children. When war broke out he had been called to the colors, being a reservist, thirty-six years old. He had been in the war since September, 1914, and had not been home in the meantime.
Mike remained my orderly until I left the army and I grew greatly attached to him. Of the great service he rendered me at the risk of his own life I shall write later.
We started off for the trenches, riding part of the way, for the road was well screened by the forest.
We passed the battery which had been fired on the previous evening and stopped a moment to look at the two big shell-holes. They were from twelve to fifteen feet across and about four feet deep. A soldier of the battery was cutting some kindling wood with his kinjal or curved dagger, which all the artillery men carry---a heavy knife with a wicked curved blade about two feet long. The trees round about were torn and splintered, one, about ten inches in diameter, having been completely severed by a jagged cut.
A few yards off, lying on its side, its feet sticking up stiffly in the air, was a dead horse. I don't know why, but horses always seem to lie that way when killed. The soldier came over when he saw us looking at the horse and explained that it had been killed by the first shell of the night before but that none of the men were hurt.
The guns of the battery were cleverly concealed in pits with a roof of saplings and sod covered with pine boughs. The shells were stored between each gun in very deep bomb-proof shelters with great logs in the roof. There were apparently about six layers of logs and dirt. Eighteen steps led down to the entrance of these little storehouses.
In back of the guns was a deep trench leading to some strongly built bomb-proof shelters where the men and officers lived. By means of this trench, they could approach the guns when being shelled, without getting hurt. In back of the trench was the fire control, a heavy bomb-proof affair, with a telephone connecting with the observation point far out in the advanced trenches in a particularly high spot or even in a tree top. Here the observing officer sits and watches the shells hit, makes the necessary corrections on the range and telephones back to the battery fire control each time he desires it changed. The gunners scarcely ever see their objective or even the explosion of their shells. These particular guns were firing over a forest at least three-quarters of a mile wide.
"We are just beginning to get shells," remarked the Colonel. "Those villainous traitors in Petrograd, bought by the Germans, had the factory near Moscow working for nearly six months on shells just a little too large to go into our guns. The blueprint patterns were a fraction of a millimeter off ---just enough to make the shells useless. I refer to the Ministers of War and Munitions and their hirelings---especially that dastard Sukhomlinoff!"
"Ah! Russia Russia! poor Russia!" sighed Metia. "Here we had those fine little guns, so quick, twenty shots a minute, and no shells! and the German artillery---oh!" and he waved his arms and rolled his eyes, unable to express his disgust.
We remounted and rode on for half a mile through beautiful pines to a bend in the road where we dismounted, tied our horses to trees, and proceeded on foot.
The occasional crack of a rifle rang out in the crisp air, only now and then, not often. It reminded me of the first day of the deer season in the northwoods at home---the cold, clear air, the odor of pines, and the occasional echoing reports, some far off, some near.
The trees were thinning now and the light of an open, space shone through ahead.
We entered an approach trench, which extended forward in a zigzag. It was not very deep and the Colonel said: "Keep your head down at the turns or you may be seen by a sniper!"
We paused for a moment at a support trench built about 300 feet back of the first line trench. Rows of barbed-wire, criss-crossed from poles about four feet high driven in the ground, were in front of it.
"Here is our dressing-station," announced the Colonel, as he led the way to the entrance of a dug-out built in the wall of the trench.
We descended some eight or ten steps. The roof was of logs and dirt. The door was a regular door evidently taken off some partly destroyed house. Inside it was dark at first, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom,, I saw I was in a little room about eight feet wide by fifteen feet long. A small stove of brick and stone occupied one end. At the other was a crude table on which were bandages and instruments covered by a white cloth. A stretcher served as an operating table, resting on four stakes driven in the earth floor, a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle serving for light. There were several benches, and near the stove a cot from which rose a very dishevelled youth.
Kalpaschnecoff introduced him as Nicholi Alexandrovitch. He was one of the students. He was a tall, gangling fellow, with a large head, slightly stooping shoulders, and a lean neck which did not seem strong enough to support the massive cranium.
"Skuchna esdes---it is tiresome here,"' he said. "No work---only three wounded yesterday. We have another station like this a quarter of a mile to the right. You will visit both every day and also the main station back at the big house. I will have your stuff sent out to-day from the base. You can live here or at the main station, as you wish. It is more comfortable back there, however."
"Thanks," I replied; "I will have my things brought here. There is room for another cot and I want to learn this trench-life and live it also, and, if you don't mind, I'll stay right here."
"As you wish," said the Colonel.
"Meester is not afraid of the German granata (shells)," said Metia.
"Yes, I am; very much afraid," I admitted. "That's why I'm staying. I want to get used to them."
We all walked down the approach-trench to the fire-trench.
"Keep very quiet here," warned the Colonel. "The German trenches are only seventy-five meters distant and they always listen for any noise or movement in our trenches. If they hear anything they send over a grenade from a trench mortar or some shells from the artillery, hoping to catch some one exposed."
Spee! A ricochet sang over our heads and I ducked as it passed by. It had such a nasty sound I could not help dodging, and I felt like a fool afterwards, resolving not to move a muscle the next time.
Bang! crashed a rifle, right at my elbow around the corner of the parapet as we slipped into a fire trench. Again I ducked involuntarily, and resolved again to control my jerky nerves.
As I walked on I felt uncomfortably tall and was sure the top of my head was above the trench. I was surprised at the small number of men on duty---just one to each sector. The trenches are not dug in a straight line but are like the design we used to call the "walls of Troy," the interposed squares of earth limiting the explosive and killing effects of a shell to the particular section in which it falls. If the trenches were straight, a direct hit---that is, a shell falling in the trench---would kill and wound men a hundred yards up and down the trench. There were about eight loopholes to each sector of the fire-trench, then a square-cut elbow around a solid block of earth about eight feet across, called a traverse, then another loopholed sector, and so on.
The Russian trenches have a head cover of timber and dirt as protection against shrapnel. They don't use many sand-bags for loopholing but make a pyramidal shaped, box of wood about three feet long, open at both ends, with a 6-inch square opening at the small end and a 2 1/2 feet by 6-inch opening at the large end. This is laid on the earth, large end toward the trench, and then it is covered with dirt and the head cover constructed. This gives a loophole with plenty of elbow-room to move a rifle about, a good place to rest it on, and a 6-inch opening at the far end to stick the end of the gun through. A fire-step is made on the side of the trench on which the soldier stands while firing and which brings his face level with the loophole.
You feel quite lonely and isolated when in one of these little sectors of fire-trench. This day there was only one soldier to a sector although not eighty yards away was an enemy anxious to attack. It seemed as if all they had to do was to walk over and take us all prisoners.
Then I noticed the funk-holes, as they are called on the English front. They are small excavated rooms in the side of the trench, in each of which were crowded eight or ten soldiers lying about, sleeping, smoking, or talking in low tones. In many, through the open passage-way could be seen charcoal braziers filled with glowing embers,---the braziers consisting of buckets, powder-cans or large meat tins in which holes had been punched.
We stopped at one of the empty loopholes and peered out over the barbed wire across No Man's Land toward the German trenches. All I could see of the German positions was a haze of tangled wire and crooked stakes and a ridge of earth which was sod-covered in some places and bare in others. Although the German trenches were only about seventy-five yards away, no loopholes could be seen and there was not a sign of life nor a moving thing. It looked for all the world like a field in which great ground moles had been digging and tunneling and, growing tired of their labors, had wandered off.
The opposing lines faced each other across a shallow ravine, ours right on the edge of the forest. The Germans had about three hundred yards of open field in back of their first line, then a dense forest---black and mysterious.
The striking thing to me was the entire absence of anything to shoot at, and yet snipers were constantly at work in our trenches and every minute or two a shot would ring out. The Germans were equally active and the crack of their bullets as they landed in the trees and the spee of their ricochets were frequently heard. The trees were simply torn to pieces by shells and bullets and presented a very bedraggled and skeleton-like appearance.
Kalpaschnecoff walked up to a little soldier who was gazing intently out of his loophole, firing away at something every couple of minutes. Scattered about his feet was a considerable pile of empty brass cartridges.
"Well, Galoopchick (little dove)"---they always call the soldiers and peasants that---"Galoopchick, what are you firing at?"
"Your Excellency, I have been at this loophole several hours every day for eight days," the little dove, who was certainly a very much soiled little dove, his face blackened from the smoke and coal of a brazier, replied. "Every few minutes, all the time I am here, a German over there waves a white flag. I shoot every time he waves that flag and still he waves it. Look now! Your Excellency will see it there---right along the top of my rifle barrel. I have pointed it right at the white flag!"
Kalpaschnecoff looked, squinting along the barrel of the rifle. Then he pulled out a pair of field binoculars and gazed long and hard. Finally he turned to me and handed me the glasses. I looked, and sure enough something white was moving; it moved to and fro for a minute and then stopped.
"Looks to me like a piece of old paper partly buried in the parapet of their trenches," I said.
"I think you are right," the Colonel agreed, and then turning to the soldier: "There, little dove, you are a faithful one to fire so often and carefully at what you thought was a German waving a flag, but it isn't a flag; it's a paper moving in the wind. Don't bother about it!"
The little fellow looked unconvinced as we moved on but, of course, he obeyed orders.
"They are like children," the Colonel commented. "As a matter of fact, though, a man standing for hours gazing at one object can hypnotize himself into believing almost anything. This trench warfare produces some funny nerve conditions. That soldier probably thinks the Germans are as tired of fighting as he is and are waving flags of truce. There's an observation point on that knoll," pointing to a rise of ground ahead; "we'll go and have a look."
The trench sloped gently upward and presently we came to a strongly built bomb-proof on the very highest part. All the trees had been torn down by shell-fire and the top of the little hill was torn and scarred. Two periscopes peeped up through holes in the thick roof of the dug-out. An officer was sitting at one, his eye glued to the eye-piece, slowly turning the milled screw-head which turned the periscope and changed its visual field.
"Be in good health, Lieutenant!" the Colonel greeted.
"Hello, Andrea Ivanovitch!" he replied. "What brings you here?"
The Colonel explained that he was showing me around, and introduced me to Lieut. Muhanoff.
The Lieutenant was a man of thirty-six but looked older. His face was covered with a scraggly brown beard and his near-sighted, humorous eyes peered through gold-rimmed spectacles. He looked more like a good-natured schoolmaster than a soldier.
"He speaks English," said Kalpaschnecoff, "but he's bashful and pretends he doesn't. Come on now, show the American how well you do!"
"I speak a very, very little---very badly. I have been to your America. Two months I was there. Yes, San Francisco, New York---ah, New York! I thought I should go mad---so much noise and confusion. I was glad to get back to dear Russia!" and he smiled apologetically.
"You do very well indeed," I replied, "and you must come to see me. I will be living in the dressing-station and will be glad to talk to some one who has been in America."
"I am commanding the scouts, doing work in No Man's Land," he declared. "I am busy every night but when I have time I will come."
I told him I should like to go with him on some of his expeditions, and he promised to take me. "It is very dangerous, however," he added, "out there between the lines."
That was the beginning of a friendship which lasted almost a year---until one terrible day in September, 1916, when he was killed.
"I am about to have the artillery destroy that old brick building near the German lines. My scouts think they are using it as an observation point. The chimney is still standing and it is quite high. Take a look!" Muhanoff invited.
I looked through the periscope. The trench lines were farther apart here, possibly three hundred yards separating them. In front of the German position, partly demolished, was an old brick building, the chimney towering above the ruined walls.
Muhanoff turned to an artillery officer, who was poring over a map under a celluloid cover with lines marking it off into squares.
"All ready, Lieutenant," he said to the officer.
"All ready, sir," the artillery-man repeated, and then he called off a couple of numbers to a soldier seated at a field telephone which communicated with the battery.
The soldier repeated the numbers.
"Now watch through the periscope," said the Lieutenant, addressing me.
I turned the instrument to the building and waited. A minute, maybe two, passed; then a whistling sound in the air overhead and a fountain of dirt and yellow, brown and white smoke shot up just in front of the building, a few yards from the wall, as the high explosive shell struck with a loud crash.
The artillery-man was watching through another periscope. He turned to the soldier and called off several more numbers. They were repeated over the telephone and after another brief wait another shot was fired. This time it scored a perfect hit and a large portion of the wall crumbled down and a shower of bricks, mortar and smoke spurted up.
As I looked I saw through the settling haze of dust a movement as of the glint of sunshine on some bright metal. The artillery-man saw it too, for I heard him sharply cry: "Shrapnel!" and rattle off some more figures hurriedly.
"That last one brought them out!" he cried excitedly, his eyes gleaming. "They have an approach-trench running from their fire-trench out to those ruins. They are crawling back to their trench through it. They didn't stoop enough in their hurry and I saw them move. Quick now with the battery and we'll catch them!" he muttered to himself.
Another screeching and a white cotton-like puff of smoke appeared a hundred feet over the ruins and exploded with a sharp barking report, and the shrapnel scattered its 180 bullets on the ground between the ruins and the German trenches searching out those scurrying Boches running for their lives. Whether any of them were hit, it was, of course, impossible for us to tell.
He continued pounding away at the old building with high explosives until the chimney and walls were all flattened out and nothing remained but a heap of bricks.
"I wonder if that shrapnel caught them in time?" he murmured as he folded up his map, lit a cigarette, and walked out.
As we were going back up the trench toward the dressing station, we turned a corner into a traverse at a point where the lines approach each other closely.
"Look out!" yelled the Colonel, dodging back against the wall of the trench and crouching there.
As I scrambled back I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of an oblong object hurtling down into the trench, turning end over end, from the direction of the German lines.
A terrific explosion occurred in the fire sector we were just about to enter. A mass of earth and wood flew up high in the air and showered down on us, covering us with dirt.
"A big grenade from a trench mortar," said the Colonel, brushing himself off. "Fortunately they come slow enough to be seen in the daytime."
The block of earth separating the two fire sectors had protected us, but the poor fellow at watch in the next sector had not fared so fortunately. We found him badly mangled, half buried in earth and timber from the caved-in parapet. He was still breathing as I stooped over him, but died before we could get him out from under the débris which was piled on his lower extremities. His head had been crushed like an eggshell by a huge fragment of the grenade.
Several more were fired at our trench a hundred yards lower down, but did no damage, as they were not direct hits.
The soldiers in the funk-holes nearby crawled out and picked up their fallen comrade by the feet and arms and carried him off to an approach-trench, his head hanging back and bumping on the uneven ground. Another posted, himself at a loophole which had not been destroyed by the grenade. Others started to patch up the parapet under the direction of an officer. There was no excitement. It was all taken as a matter of course. In a few minutes everything was as before in that sector except for a hole in the trench parapet, a few dark stains on the earth, and a different soldier staring out across No Man's Land.
We went back to our dressing station. As we entered the approach-trench we had to step over a huddled object covered with a torn brown overcoat and we met two of our stretcher-bearers approaching with a rolled-up stretcher. To-morrow a new wooden cross would appear back in the forest taking its place among thousands of others already there.
At the dressing station we found that an orderly had just brought in our dinner. It was carried in porcelain dishes racked or nested together one above the other and held by a wire. It was quite hot and consisted of hot cabbage soup, cutlets of chopped beef, fried potatoes and stewed dried fruit. Tea was made in a little samovar which Nicholi Alexandrovitch always kept with him even here in the trenches.
We seated ourselves on blocks of wood and crude benches, using the stretcher for a table. It was covered with a clean muslin cloth, which I was glad of, as I had noticed several suspicious brownish-red stains on the canvas earlier in the day. We ate from tin plates and had real knives and forks and glass tumblers for our tea.
The soldiers have a tin cup, a small copper pail holding about a quart for their soup, and a large wooden spoon which they carry stuck in their bootleg. The bucket and cup are attached to their belt on the march.
Mike, my new orderly, arrived late in the afternoon with my cot and luggage. The Colonel, Metia and Lieutenant Muhanoff left, and I was alone, with Nicholi Alexandrovitch, who could speak no English. I had been plugging away steadily with my Russian and could understand an ordinary conversation but spoke with difficulty. However, we got along fairly well, using Mike when we got into difficulty or resorting to the sign language.
It was snug that night down there in the dugout. The occasional sound of artillery was muffled by the thick walls.
About eleven o'clock, Nicholi prepared to retire. He stood a long time with the covers of his cot turned down leaning over with a candle in his hand. Long and intently he scrutinized it, the ritual lasting for about ten minutes, and then he blew out the candle and crawled into bed. I supposed it some strange Russian religious ceremony and made no comment.
After a while I too turned in. It was quiet and dark in the dug-out and I soon became drowsy. just as I was falling asleep, I felt an itchy spot just below the knee. I rubbed it with the other leg and at once developed a similar condition on the ankle of that leg. I concluded that I had eaten something that day which had given me hives. Another and another place started, until I seemed to have half a hundred of them, and as I squirmed and tossed about I figured that I must be spotted like a leopard and I got out of bed to see.
I got a candle and lighted it and an examination of my body revealed a typical attack of hives---very nasty one.
A chuckle, somewhat muffled by the bedclothes, sounded from the student's end of the room.
"Blockie, Meester?" inquired a sleepy voice.
"No, hives---urticaria," I replied, giving the medical name.
"No, no, Meester; blockie!' insisted the student.
"What in the devil are blockie??" I asked.
"I will show you," and he shuffled over to my cot, took the candle and searched in my bed. Presently he made a dive at something and presented me with a tiny black mite held between his forefinger and thumb---a little flea.
His strange maneuver before retiring was no longer a mystery to me---it was one I performed or Mike performed for me every night for the next eighteen months!
Nicholi produced some powder from his cot and dusted it over my bed and between the covers, after searching around and finding three more fleas.
"Now, Meester can sleep," he said; and I did ---very well.
A great blessing is good insect powder on the Russian front!
Chapter Nine: I go "over the top".